Guest post by Franklin Annis, creator of The Evolving Warfighter video blog
Former US Joint Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is credited for his famous quote about leaders handling their Soldiers’ problems:
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
As much as I would love to believe that human actions are totally independent of their environment, the truth is that we are influenced by the behaviors of the individuals we spend the most time with. Leaders truly set the tone within their organizations and any maladaptive behaviors not corrected can quickly spread throughout the organization. This is what makes “toxic leadership” in the military so dangerous; a single toxic leader can quickly program others in their maladapted leadership.
One question that every leader should ask themselves is if they focus on enabling solutions to problems or are they focusing on existence of a problem? The former can lead to highly adaptive and functional units. The latter can quickly lead to dysfunction and reduce the motivation and productivity within organizations. Let us examine examples of these two approaches. Imagine a soldier asking for the correct routing for a memo.
Leader A responds: “The contact is MSG Smith on the 2nd floor. If you need to know the flow chart of the organization, ask SSG Jones and he can explain the process further.”
Leader B responds: “You should know this by now. Go get SSG Jones so he can explain why you don’t know.”
It should be obvious which example actually functions as a “leader” in this scenario. Leader A offered the needed information to move the process forward (addressing the problem) and provided an additional resource if further help was needed. Leader B failed to provide any information to correct the problem. Moreover, Leader B’s approach likely stripped the motivation from the soldier. How likely will the soldier ask another question of Leader B? Soldiers likely avoid these types of leaders. Given the best organizations are often defined by effective communication, having leaders that create hostile environments can quickly destroy the productivity and motivation of an organization. Let’s face it, no one optimizes their performance in an environment of fear.
Now it is true that sometimes leaders must discipline soldiers that make repeated mistakes. But these corrections should come after the error becomes an apparent trend. And even then, the corrective actions should occur after the problem has been addressed. Whenever possible the corrective action should occur in private to respect the soldier’s dignity. Additionally, leaders should set appropriate boundaries so they remain helpful and approachable, but are not “solving their Soldiers’ problems for them.” Leaders must ensure they appropriately leverage the chain of command and aim to solve problems at the lowest level possible.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for maladaptive behaviors to be “learned.” It took me all of a month of working in a hostile environment for a maladaptive behavior to appear at home. Much to my disgrace I interacted with my wife in a way that I had become accustomed to receiving at work. We had previously agreed to a budget of $50 to buy some household items. A few days later, my wife reported that she found two items for a total of $25 and asked for a little more money to purchase a third item. I responded, “What did I tell you? You really need to start writing things down.” As soon as I spoke those words, I deeply regretted my actions. Instead of “solving the problem” and celebrating the frugality of my wife, I created a very negative interaction that damaged one of my most cherished relationships. It made me realize how even I could be shaped by my work environment. Life in the military is hard enough on our families even before we bring home maladaptive behaviors.
So, I challenge every leader to reflect for a moment before responding to a soldier’s problem. Think how you will answer either in person or online. Are you providing information or guidance on how to solve the problem first and foremost? Are you responding in a manner that will make it likely for soldiers to keep bringing you problems? Are you “punishing the messenger?” Remember that if you needlessly punish soldiers for telling you the truth, then you will eventually teach them how to lie to you or avoid interacting with you. Leaders have a responsibility to inspire.
If we want to be great leaders, we must learn to always focus on solving the problem, realize that even our best soldiers make mistakes, and that we are responsible for our own actions as leaders. We may not always have the best leaders in our organization, but we should seek to create positive environments and shield others from “bad” leadership if required. Being reflective on our actions can help with this process. We must be mindful that the leadership traits we display today will be displayed tomorrow by our soldiers.
Dr. Franklin C. Annis is the Ready Medical Force Management Officer at the National Guard Bureau. He created and produces The Evolving Warfighter video blog on YouTube, which focuses on the self-development of US Army Soldiers to improve their capacity to lead. You can find Franklin on Twitter. His thoughts shared in this post are his personal views only and do not reflect that of the US Army.
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